Skip to Main Content

Table Graphic Jump Location
Favorite Table | Download (.pdf) | Print
Patient Image not available.

Mrs. K is a 75-year-old woman who complains of a painful left knee.

Image not available.What is the differential diagnosis of joint pain? How would you frame the differential?

The causes of joint pain range from common to rare and from not particularly dangerous to joint- and life-threatening. Even the most benign causes of joint pain can lead to serious disability. The evaluation of a patient with joint pain calls for a detailed history and physical exam (often focusing on extra-articular findings) and occasionally the sampling of joint fluid and possibly analyzing serologic tests.


There are three pivotal features in organizing the approach to joint pain. First, is the pain articular or extra-articular? Although this distinction may seem obvious, abnormalities of periarticular structures can mimic articular disease. Second, is a single joint or are multiple joints involved? Finally, are the involved joints inflamed or not?


The first pivotal point in making a diagnosis in a patient with joint pain is to determine whether the patient's pain is truly articular, real joint pain, or periarticular.


The differential diagnosis below is organized by these pivotal points: the number of joints involved (monoarticular vs polyarticular) and by whether or not the joint is inflamed (judged by physical exam, joint fluid analysis, or both). Recognize that all of the monoarticular arthritides can present in a polyarticular distribution, and classically polyarticular diseases may occasionally only affect a single joint.

Table Graphic Jump Location
Favorite Table | Download (.pdf) | Print
Image not available.The joint distribution of diseases that cause joint pain is variable; monoarticular arthritides may present with polyarticular findings and vice versa.

  1. Monoarticular arthritis

    1. Inflammatory

      1. Infectious

        1. Gonococcal arthritis

        1. Nongonococcal septic arthritis

        1. Lyme disease

      1. Crystalline

        1. Monosodium urate (gout)

        1. Calcium pyrophosphate dihydrate deposition disease (CPPD or pseudogout)

    1. Noninflammatory

      1. Osteoarthritis (OA)

      1. Traumatic

      1. Avascular necrosis

  2. Polyarticular arthritis

    1. Inflammatory

      1. Rheumatologic

        1. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

        1. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)

        1. Psoriatic arthritis

        1. Other rheumatic diseases

      1. Infectious

        1. Bacterial

          1. Bacterial endocarditis

          1. Lyme disease

        1. Viral

          1. Rubella

          1. Hepatitis B

          1. HIV

          1. Parvovirus

        1. Postinfectious

          1. Enteric

          1. Urogenital

          1. Rheumatic fever

    1. Noninflammatory: OA

Table Graphic Jump Location
Favorite Table | Download (.pdf) | Print
Image not available. 

Mrs. K's symptoms started after she stepped down from a bus with unusual force. The pain became intolerable within about 6 hours of onset and has been present for 3 days now. She otherwise feels well. She reports no fevers, chills, dietary changes, or sick contacts.

On physical exam she is in obvious pain, limping into the exam room on a cane. Her vital signs are temperature, 37.0°C; RR, 12 breaths per minute; BP, 110/70 mm Hg; pulse, 80 bpm. The only abnormality on exam is the right knee. It is red, warm to the touch, and tender to palpation. The range of motion is limited to only about 20 degrees.

Image not available.At this point, what is the leading hypothesis, what are the active alternatives, and is there a ...

Want remote access to your institution's subscription?

Sign in to your MyAccess profile while you are actively authenticated on this site via your institution (you will be able to verify this by looking at the top right corner of the screen - if you see your institution's name, you are authenticated). Once logged in to your MyAccess profile, you will be able to access your institution's subscription for 90 days from any location. You must be logged in while authenticated at least once every 90 days to maintain this remote access.


About MyAccess

If your institution subscribes to this resource, and you don't have a MyAccess profile, please contact your library's reference desk for information on how to gain access to this resource from off-campus.

Subscription Options

AccessMedicine Full Site: One-Year Subscription

Connect to the full suite of AccessMedicine content and resources including more than 250 examination and procedural videos, patient safety modules, an extensive drug database, Q&A, Case Files, and more.

$995 USD
Buy Now

Pay Per View: Timed Access to all of AccessMedicine

24 Hour Subscription $34.95

Buy Now

48 Hour Subscription $54.95

Buy Now

Pop-up div Successfully Displayed

This div only appears when the trigger link is hovered over. Otherwise it is hidden from view.